‘I’ve got tears of joy’: Change to LDS Church’s LGBTQ policy earns praise beyond the faith community

Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams was traveling Thursday morning and said he had to pull over to check his phone after it started “exploding” with the news that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had ended its controversial 2015 LGBTQ policy.

Williams said he felt overwhelmed, adding that the change — about 3½ years after the policy leaked in November 2015 — was a positive step.

“I’m grateful that leaders have listened to members and heard them,” Williams said. “They know the pain that the policy has caused — and responded.”

The now-abandoned edict labeled same-sex Latter-day Saint couples “apostates” and generally barred their children from baptism and other religious rites.

Thursday’s reversal was met mainly with positive reactions, including from some of the church’s occasional — and occasionally harsh — critics.

Fred Karger, a gay-rights activist who leads an effort to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status, applauded Latter-day Saint leaders for recognizing the need to shift course on LGBTQ families.

“I’ve got tears of joy,” he said. “I was told for many years this would never happen.”

In a Thursday announcement, church leaders confirmed that children of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender parents may be blessed as babies — a tradition within the faith — and baptized without the need for approval from the faith’s governing First Presidency.

Couples in a same-sex marriage would also cease to be subject to an automatic church disciplinary proceeding.

“While we still consider such a marriage to be a serious transgression," a church news release states, "it will not be treated as apostasy for purposes of church discipline. Instead, the immoral conduct in heterosexual or homosexual relationships will be treated in the same way.”

Karger said it remains uncertain how specific practices will change in response to the new policies. But he said the shift has the potential to be a “sea change" that saves and improves lives.

“If they’re allowed to live a full life, to be married to someone they love of the same sex and are welcomed back into the church,” he said, “that is revolutionary.”

He said there is also the potential now for the Utah-based faith to take a leadership role among other churches that have been slow to respond to public attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I’ve always believed that pressure needed to be applied,” Karger said. “So many people were telling me that it was a waste of time, but the church does respond.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski was elected to office the same week the 2015 policy leaked. And in one of her first statements as mayor-elect, Biskpuski said she hoped the church’s decision would not last long.

In a news release Thursday, Biskupski, the city’s first openly gay mayor, said the church’s decision to drop the policy was “welcome and moving news.”

“I am grateful for this revelation and for church leaders acting upon it,” she said. “This action is supportive of families and may even save lives.”

In the years since the policy came to light, advocacy organizations suggested the church’s positions had contributed to Utah’s high youth suicide rate, while individual churchgoers described resigning their membership, halting their tithing payments or returning their temple recommends — which allow participation in the faith’s most sacred ceremonies — in response to the exclusion of children from LGBTQ families.

Encircle CEO Stephenie Larsen, whose organization operates support centers for LGBTQ youths, said Thursday’s announcement is a move toward alleviating the pain and suffering experienced by families since the policy took hold in 2015.

“It is a step," she said, “toward no parent ever needing to choose between their church and their child.”

Larsen said Encircle sees direct spikes in suicidal ideation, hospital visits and therapy sessions when church leaders give sermons or issue statements sometimes seen as harsh to LGBTQ individuals. But she also credited a groundswell from the public around issues like hate crimes and conversion therapy — both of which were debated at the Legislature this year — with prompting the church to rethink its positions.

“Members are sending a message that we love LGBTQ people,” she said. “I think our Heavenly Parents made them this way. They are just the way they are intended to be, and should be, to make the world a better place.”

The church reaffirmed Thursday that it not revising its doctrine on homosexuality. It opposes gay marriage and teaches that having same-sex attractions is not a sin, but acting on them is.

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, the only openly gay member of the Utah Legislature, said the 2015 policy was “clearly misguided" and alienated many families, both directly and indirectly. But while church leaders may have misunderstood what it means to be part of an LGBTQ family, he said, Thursday’s announcement is a solid stride toward being more inclusive and welcoming.

“The world is changing,” Kitchen said, “and the church is changing alongside it.”

Other reactions were more overtly critical.

Christian Harrison, a Salt Lake City mayoral candidate who describes himself as an out gay man and practicing Latter-day Saint, said he had witnessed lives ruined and damage done to his faith community by the 2015 policy, which he described as “senseless.”

“This morning, we’ve had a change of course,” Harrison said. “And while full restitution isn’t possible, I look forward to the tremendous good that will come from the LDS Church committing itself to fighting the scourge of youth suicide.”

Kate Kelly, who was excommunicated in 2014 for “conduct contrary to the laws and order of the church” after pushing for the ordination of women to the faith’s all-male priesthood, posted a series of criticisms on Twitter.

“My feelings on this self-serving reversal,” Kelley wrote, “too little, too late.”

Tribune reporter Kathy Stephenson contributed to this story.